Navy still working on finding the cause of Red Hill fuel leak

Honolulu Star Advertiser - March 8, 2014
William Cole

The Navy hasn't yet gotten to the bottom of a leak at the Red Hill fuel farm that is believed to have dumped up to 27,000 gallons of JP-8 aviation fuel into concrete containment surrounding the leaky steel liner.

Tank 5 had just been repaired and refilled when the leak was detected Jan. 13.

Capt. Mike Williamson, commander of Naval Facilities Engineering Command Hawaii, told state lawmakers Friday that preparations are underway to make the giant tank "gas-free" so personnel can enter it and determine the cause of the leak.

That work plan has visual inspections beginning in mid- to late April, he said.

State Sen. Mike Gabbard (D, Kapo­lei-Maka­kilo), chairman of the Senate Energy and Environment Committee, and members of five other House and Senate committees asked the Navy, Department of Health and Board of Water Supply to answer questions after the recent spill drew renewed attention to the underground fuel farm, which was built in secrecy during World War II and is still deemed a critical Navy facility today. The committees held a joint informational briefing Friday at the state Capitol.

Lt. Cmdr. Angela Watson, fuels director at the Fleet Logistics Center Pearl Harbor, said fuel is believed to have leaked through the 21⁄2- to 4-foot-thick concrete containment and created a "damp" spot on the wall.

Watson said there was a spike in fuel detection in the soil monitoring beneath the tank, but the Navy had not seen any fuel products in the nearest groundwater monitoring well.

"It (the fuel) is likely within the concrete surrounding the tank," Watson said.

She also said there was no indication fuel has "moved beyond the direct vicinity of the tank."

Navy reports revealed multiple fuel leaks of many thousands of gallons over some seven decades from the 20 giant underground storage tanks, which are each 250 feet tall and 100 feet wide.

Aloha Tower would easily fit into each of the tanks.

A Navy well was dug about 3,000 feet downhill from the fuel farm, and includes a water tunnel extending across the water table to within 1,560 feet of the facility, one of the Navy reports said.

The Board of Water Supply Halawa Shaft is about 5,000 feet northwest of Red Hill.

The Navy said drinking water drawn from the area is safe.

"To date we have not found any free products, any free petroleum, in any of the monitoring wells," Willi­am­son said.

Gary Gill, deputy director for environmental health with the state Health Department, said the Navy, in a 1998 study, estimated that as much as 1.2 million gallons of fuel had leaked from the Red Hill tanks to that point, and that 19 of the 20 tanks had leaked.

Some legislators questioned the longevity of Red Hill and suggested that the Defense Department should plan for closure or complete renovation of the now 71-year-old tanks.

"I know the Navy is considering various options for retrofitting these tanks — relining them or building tanks within tanks, all of these things are in play," Gill said.

Watson said studies are continuing to determine "what the long-term solution is for those tanks."

She added that the maintenance cycle the tanks undergo does upgrade the tanks. In some cases, additional steel is welded in place to increase the thickness of the steel walls.

Williamson noted that the repairs are similar to the modernization of an old Navy ship.

"Then you retire those ships from the fleet," said Rep. Cynthia Thielen (R, Kaneohe-Kailua).

Williamson responded that when the tanks are retrofitted, they are repaired to a standard that allows them to remain in service for another 20 years.

But Tank 5 was just repaired and it leaked, Thielen pointed out.

"So one of the tanks that you are retrofitting and doing all of that, had a release, which makes me feel that maybe one ought to look at retiring the fleet or at least starting the dialogue, because that's not a (federal) budget item that happens overnight," Thielen said.

The Navy's Watson said there are no other indications of leaks from the Red Hill tanks in the past 20 years.

She was asked whether the contractor that made the Tank 5 repairs, the Willbros Group, damaged the tank. "I am uncertain," Watson said.

Historically, at least some of the fuel that's been stored at Red Hill "has found its way down into the groundwater below the tanks," Gill said.

The Health Department did notify the public recently that "very low" levels of lead and other chemicals were detected in the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam water system.

The lead levels were within federal and state compliance levels for drinking water, the Health Department said.

Officials said those chemicals were not from the recent fuel spill.

Fifteen tanks are still operating, two are retired and three are always in a maintenance cycle.

Over the past 20 years, the Navy has made "significant upgrades" to the Red Hill tank complex, it said.

That includes the fuel vapor monitors, groundwater monitoring wells and an "inventory accounting control system" that tracks tank levels to one-sixteenth of an inch.

Watson said when a tank is refilled, some fuel settling occurs, but when the fuel was discovered dropping as much as it did, "that is when we were alarmed."